The saga of the “Great Buffalo
Hunt,” with its picturesque commercial “hide men” and its ecological
ramifications for one of the hemisphere’s most iconic animals, has long held a
niche in the narrative of the American West. For a handful of years after the
Civil War, these mostly Anglo market hunters reaved the Plains until the precipitous
crash of the bison population put them and their lifestyle out of business.
But long before these market
hunters launched their enterprises upon the prairies, another group of
Euro-Americans had successfully institutionalized buffalo hunting for
subsistence and commerce on the Southern Plains. Known as Ciboleros,
these Hispanic hunters developed effective hunting strategies based around
communal hunts that came to be a vital part of the annual cycle of frontier
life from northern Mexico to today’s Colorado.
By adapting Spanish equestrian
and military traditions to the hunting of buffalo, they developed a successful long-term
strategy for harvesting meat and hides that lasted nearly two centuries. It was
they who first introduced the Plains Indians to equestrian buffalo hunting.
Eschewing firearms, they often slew their quarry with lances on heart-pounding corridas
atop horses specially bred to the chase. Like Medieval cavalcades, their annual
caravans launched themselves onto the Southern Plains every autumn, bound for
the vast hunting grounds of the Llano Estacado, a landscape of legendary
extremes and awash with millions of buffalo.